For many writers--and, perhaps, for the general public--"success" means six-figure advances, bestseller status, big-ticket awards (including those just announced for this year's very deserving Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz Award winners).
By that definition, most of us--including YA Guy--are abysmal failures. Given the very nature of publishing, the very nature of any business venture, most people don't achieve that kind of success. Most of us plug along somewhere in the middle, perhaps making some money, perhaps not, perhaps making a career of it, more likely not, perhaps winning an award or two, perhaps not, but never becoming household names.
I've been writing since I was about eight years old. (Actually, earlier than that, but it was around age eight that I tried to write my first novel--on my mom's manual typewriter. After a page of typos and frustration, I gave up.) Since that time, and with increasing frequency from the year I started college (1983) to the present, I've produced numerous creative nonfiction essays, short stories, academic books and articles, and partial or completed novels. Some of the above has been published, some of it hasn't. None of it has skyrocketed to fame. But all of it, even the things I didn't finish for one reason or another (because the idea wasn't as good as I first thought, because I ran out of steam, whatever), has been written.
So I decided to pursue a different definition of "success," one based purely on page totals. In my calculations, I ruled out academic books and articles, as well as short pieces (fiction and nonfiction), and focused on novels. The numbers are skewed downward by that decision, considerably so, but since novel-writing was and is my highest aspiration (as it is for many writers), it made sense to me to narrow my output in that way.
For purposes of this quantitative analysis, I estimated a completed novel (whether published or unpublished) at 300 manuscript pages (except for my earliest novels, written in the years 1981-1987, which tended to be shorter, so I averaged those at 250 pages per novel). An unfinished novel--either one that I've discarded permanently or that I'm still working on--I assigned an average of 100 pages. With those estimates, here's what I came up with:
In total from the years 1981 (when I completed my first novel at age 16) to the present, I've written roughly 4,750 manuscript pages of novel-length works. This breaks down as follows:
- On average, I've written 125 pages worth of novels per year over a period of 38 years, or about a page every three days.
- Narrowed down to the years of my greatest productivity, from 2010 to the present, I've written about 3,900 pages, for an average of 433 pages per year. That's over a page a day for almost 10 years.
- Limited to completed novels, it works out to approximately 3,300 pages or 366 pages per year.
- Confined further to completed and published novels, it drops to about 2,100 pages or 233 pages per year. However, that number is unacceptably low--because, of the seven novels I've started but not finished, only three of them have been completely abandoned, so the other four might be considered "on their way" to completion and, hopefully, publication. Ditto with the four novels from 2010-2019 that are completed but unpublished; two of them will never see the light of day, but one is currently being shopped by my agent and the other I plan to self-publish.
Dare I say I've been successful?
Maybe yes, maybe no. If the almost 5,000 pages of novel-material I've produced in my lifetime have been complete and utter garbage, then maybe I'm less successful than delusional. But on the other hand, even if those pages have been junk, I've written them, and writing counts for something in and of itself. I like to think my success as a writer has been like my career as a writer: somewhere in the middle. No, I'm not one of the great writers of my own or any time, but I'm not a hack either. I'm a writer like most writers, producing as much work as I can that's as good as I can make it.
I hope this exercise doesn't seem merely a pep talk to myself. My purpose in conducting it was to offer words of encouragement to the many writers who are in the same place that I am: people who've been writing for years without the obvious signs of "success" that some writers have achieved. I'm thinking it would be a good idea for those writers to take the time, now and again, to redefine "success." You can do it quantitatively as I've done, or you can find some other qualitative measure: satisfaction, personal growth, positive reviews, the stranger on the street who recognized you. All of those measures (and many more) are valid, and validating.
So be a successful writer. Your own kind of successful writer.